Prophecy is one of the most powerful gifts that God has given to his church, and many of us will be able to recall times when prophetic words have been shared that have lifted people's heads, inspired faith and helped people to worship God.
This can be particularly true in a church planting situation. At such a crucial stage in the formation of the church, the positive impact of hearing a word from God can be multiplied.
However, it also the case that the impact of unhelpful, cringey or just plain weird words can also be greater in a church plant. It is part of the role of the church plant leader to create an atmosphere where prophecy can flourish without getting weird.
Here are a few 'do's and 'dont's that we have found helpful.
1. DO Bring Your Words With a Positive Tone
According to 1 Corinthians 14:3, "The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and consolation." The purpose of prophecy in our church plants is not to be spokespeople of God's judgment in the mould of some of the Old Testament prophets, but to encourage, upbuild and console people with what God has shown us.
Church plants can often be quite fragile environments to speak prophetically into and negative words can quickly crush the culture and leave the community feeling heavy. Stay light and positive where possible (this is not to say that God might not use our prophetic words to convict people, but that is his job, not ours).
2. DON'T Add to What God Says
I have noticed that sometimes when God gives me a word or a picture for someone, he also gives me an interpretation and I can share with that person what I think God is saying and what it means.
On other occasions I am given the word or picture but don't have an interpretation. When this happens, I will pray and ask God to show me what it means, but if an interpretation isn't forthcoming then I will just share what God has given me and resist the temptation to embellish it with an interpretation that I have made up myself. It may be that somebody else in the room has a word that dovetails nicely with what God was saying through me and makes it all clear, or it may be that it will make sense to the person it is for even if it doesn't make sense to me.
I have observed that when people end up getting stuck around prophecies, it is often the case that they have taken their own (or somebody else's) interpretation and held it with the same weight as the words of the prophecy itself. A really helpful question to ask is 'what did God actually say?'
3. DO Keep It Short and Simple
When God shows you a picture or gives you a message for somebody, have a think about how you can articulate it before you start to speak. Is there a way that gets the message across that is fairly brief and easy to understand? I can think of times when people who have genuinely heard from God have struggled to find the words to explain just what they have heard and it can end up making the message long-winded and unclear. Had they spent a little bit of time before sharing the word thinking about how they could have put it across then they would have been able to serve the rest of the congregation much better.
4. DON'T Bring to Everyone What God Meant For You
Not every word that God speaks to us is supposed to be shared corporately. Sometimes God whispers something to our spirits that is meant as an encouragement (or a challenge) to us personally. Other times God may give us a word that will inform how we lead the meeting but that we may not directly share.
In the early days of a church plant there are usually not many people gathering together, and there will be even fewer people who feel comfortable sharing prophetic words in our meetings. It can sometimes feel like a struggle building a culture of prophecy into our church plants, so the temptation can be to share publicly as soon as we feel we have heard from God - whether that word is meant for the whole congregation or just for you - but is important that we think about whether the word will be helpful for everybody before sharing it.
5. DO Think About the Context of the Meeting
Remember that when your church plant is just fifteen of you in a room, you really don't want to make things feel awkward, intense or weird. Prophecy that is brought well can lift the meeting, and when this happens it usually fits in well with the other things that God is doing in the meeting.
Before sharing your prophetic word, it is a good idea to think about what contributions have been brought by other people and what themes have emerged through the sermon and the worship music. It may be that your word fits well into the flow right now, or it may be that you would be wise to hold onto it for a few minutes (or even possibly until next week) and look for a more opportune moment. If God would have you share the word then the right time will come.
6. DON'T Alienate People
When you have a word to share, try to find a way to share it that is accessible to everybody in the room. For example, if the picture you have been given is in the context of a particular movie, then it is worth explaining enough context about the movie that the word will make sense to people who haven't seen it (although don't overdo it - share enough for the word to make sense but no more). Similarly, if your prophecy uses a sporting image then either explain it in simple terms or think about reframing it in a way that people who aren't into sports will get.
The principle here is the same as the one that means a word given in a tongue should be interpreted - we want everybody to understand and be blessed by the contribution.
On a similar note, think about whether your word will alienate people on an emotional level. A picture about snuggling up to God like a teddy bear may be helpful for you but off-putting for others. If there is a way of rephrasing it that doesn't lose the essence of the word then this may prove helpful.
7. DO Consider Outsiders
When Paul teaches the Corinthian church about the use of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 14, one of his primary considerations is the effect that it will have on the outsider. For example, in verses 23-25 he says, "If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you."
Paul knows that prophecy can have a powerful impact on outsiders, and we should not refrain from prophesying when we have guests, but it is helpful to bear them in mind in the way that we bring our prophecies. It is possible that the language and style that we use to bring a word could leave an outsider confused rather than helped if we are not careful. Is it possible to bring the same thing in a way that is clearer to people who are not used to church?
8. DON'T Worry
When we plant churches we must remember that everyone is learning everything! The preacher is probably learning how to preach, the worship leader is learning how to sing in a way that other follow and the community group leaders are learning how to be hospitable! Chances are that you are all learning how to hear from God and contribute in a meeting. The best thing to do is not worry too much about how you do but to talk with others and try to learn what was good and what wasn't.
9. DO Show Humility
When the New Testament talks about prophecy, it points out that prophetic words should be weighed. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 says, "Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good."
Because prophecy needs to be weighed, there is a degree of humility that is appropriate when bringing the word. Introducing the prophecy with words like 'I think God might be saying...' tends to go down a bit better than 'Thus says the Lord...', as does reporting what God is saying in the third person rather than speaking out it directly in the first person (contrast 'I believe the Lord is saying to us that we are his dearly loved children' with 'I love you my dear children').
10. DON'T Be Afraid to Prophesy
The beautiful thing about a church community is that everybody is rooting for you and will be blessed by what you bring. If you are somebody who doesn't prophesy often, people will be particularly encouraged to hear you speaking out what God has whispered to you.
God has things to say to his people through you, and the word that you think might be from him probably is. Step out and go for it.
"Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." (1 Corinthians 14:1)